27 Facts About Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

You don’t have to be much of a trivia buff to know that the nation’s 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919), was responsible for putting a name to the teddy bear phenomenon after a newspaper cartoon depicted him refusing to shoot an injured bear on a hunting trip. ("Teddy's bear" became a buzz phrase.) But Roosevelt—who passed away on January 6, 1919—certainly had a much more storied life than influencing the stuffed animal industry. Here are some things you might not have known about the dedicated environmentalist who had a fondness for skinny-dipping, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

1. He went from wimp to warrior.

Born on October 27, 1858, Roosevelt—often called “Teedie” or “Teddy” by friends—was a frail kid, prone to illness, asthma, and lacking physical strength. Despite his modest build, he was an avid outdoors enthusiast, and sometimes carried his fascination with wildlife indoors by practicing taxidermy. At 14, his family went on a tour of Egypt, and he traveled with his somewhat macabre tools of the trade, including arsenic. As a teen, Roosevelt put his stuffed birds aside and decided to become aggressive in his physical routine, training in gymnastics and weightlifting. Later, he would practice both boxing and judo. The intense interest he showed in combat sports made him a fitness advocate for the rest of his life.

2. He was an odd man out at Harvard.

The enthusiastic and boisterous Roosevelt, who began attending Harvard in the fall of 1876, was unlike many of his more subdued peers. When he was in a fervent discussion, he’d strike his hand into his palm to make a point. When he saw a friend, he’d yell at him from across the grass. Despite his rough manners, Roosevelt still made plenty of friends through his athletic pursuits. And he did OK academically, too: At the time of his graduation, he was ranked 21 out of 161 students.

3. He could be extremely jealous.

While at Harvard, Roosevelt met his first wife, Alice Lee. After a courtship, the two got engaged with an eye on marriage after graduation. Despite Alice’s adoration, Roosevelt was said to be apoplectic when any man dared approach her. If a man got out of line, Roosevelt would threaten to challenge him to a duel. At one point, he even mailed away for a pair of French dueling pistols in case anyone wished to take him up on the offer.

4. He tried his hand at becoming a rancher.

Roosevelt was often at his most comfortable when he was surrounded by the tropes of the outdoors: cattle, horses, guns, and vast stretches of land. Traveling to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison, Roosevelt was intrigued by the idea of operating a cattle ranch there and soon went in business (with a $14,000 investment) with Sylvane Ferris, the brother of his hunting guide, and cattleman Bill Merrifield. That led to a second ranch, which he dubbed Elkhorn. While he enjoyed playing cowboy—complete with buckskin shirt and spurs—overgrazing and bad weather conspired to create financial losses. Roosevelt sold his interest in the ranches by 1898.

5. He was an accomplished author.

Drawing on his affection for the outdoors, Roosevelt spent considerable time before taking presidential office authoring books with titles like Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and a primer on the Western frontier, the four-volume Winning of the West. The writing was in some measure an escape for Roosevelt, who once retreated to his Dakota Territory ranch in 1884 after his wife, Alice, and his mother both died on the same day. (In his journal entry for that day, he wrote, "The light has gone out of my life.") Roosevelt continued writing for the rest of his life, relying on income from publishing rather than his public-office salaries to support himself.

6. He once chased down boat thieves.

In 1886, Roosevelt’s moored boat was stolen from his ranch and taken down the Little Missouri River. Calling it a matter of personal honor and feeling the need to pursue criminals in his role as a deputy sheriff, Roosevelt gave chase while accompanied by his two ranch hands. Trailing armed thieves was dangerous enough, but the frigid late winter weather had turned the river into an icy, treacherous path. Sensing he could be in for a prolonged ride, Roosevelt packed up flour, coffee, and a copy of Anna Karenina for downtime. After three days and braving freezing weather, the group crept up on the thieves on the river bank and apprehended all of them. Fearing that tying them up might cut off their circulation in the cold air, Roosevelt ordered the men to take their boots off. In cactus country, that was as good as a pair of handcuffs. Roosevelt spent the long ride back reading Anna Karenina.

7. He was a war hero.

Theodore Roosevelt in his Rough Riders uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Drawn to public service after dropping out of law school, Roosevelt became president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners in 1895 and assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy in 1897. After the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt insisted on serving and eventually became colonel of the First U.S. Volunteer Calvary. His “Rough Riders” were involved in skirmishes and Roosevelt himself was wounded by shrapnel while advancing on the San Juan River in Cuba. At the Battle of San Juan Hill, he led a charge with a skeleton crew of men, holding Spanish soldiers at bay and keeping position until they were relocated by superiors. Roosevelt’s leadership was hailed by many as an exemplar of courage, and reports of his bravery helped win him a seat as governor of New York upon his return.

8. He's still the youngest president in history.

Vice President Roosevelt became president in 1901 immediately following the assassination of sitting president William McKinley. At the age of 42, he was—and remains—the youngest president in the country’s history. (John F. Kennedy was 43 when he was sworn in; Bill Clinton was 46.)

9. He was a dedicated environmentalist.

A lover of the outdoors, Roosevelt made protecting the natural wonder of American territory a priority. Over his tenure in the White House, he reserved 200 million acres of land for national forests and wildlife refuges; previous presidents combined had only done a fifth of that. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth," he said in 1908. "But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.

"These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”

10. He knew how to charm the press.

More than any other president before him, Roosevelt knew how to enact effective change: Get the press and public opinion on his side. He created a press room at the White House and invited correspondents for informal chats while he got a shave; he was also prone to publicity stunts, like riding 98 miles on horseback and field-testing a new submarine vessel by diving to the bottom of Long Island Sound.

11. He had a beef with beef.

Food safety was not of paramount concern to lawmakers in the early part of the 20th century. (As an example of their suspect methodology, the U.S. government once solicited volunteers to ingest one common food additive, formaldehyde, to see if there were any adverse effects.) Roosevelt was firm in his mission to make sure American beef products were safe to consume, dispatching investigators to meat-packing plants and collecting horror stories of dirty preparation areas and putrid meat. Despite intense objection from the meat industry, Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act into law in 1906.

12. He helped save football.

In the early 1900s, football was perhaps even more dangerous than it is today, with only loose regulations requiring protective equipment guarding players from serious injury. Roughly 45 players died from 1900 to 1905 from a variety of ailments as a result of collisions, from broken necks to broken backs. With public tide turning against the game, Roosevelt summoned representatives from Yale, Harvard, and other schools in 1905 to discuss new measures that would improve its safety profile. His concern helped usher in new rules—while the sport wasn’t and isn’t “safe,” it did largely turn around its alarming mortality rate.

13. He practically kept a zoo while in office.

Roosevelt’s White House was no place for anyone skittish over animals. In addition to the numerous dogs, rabbits, and horses, the president also kept snakes, flying squirrels, chickens, bears, a lion, a zebra, and what he described as a “friendly and affectionate” rat.

14. Boxing blinded him in one eye.

Roosevelt’s fondness for combat sports didn’t leave him when he was elected to the highest office in the land. In 1905, when he was almost 50, Roosevelt was sparring in a boxing match with a partner when he was struck with a right to his left eye. The blow left him with a detached retina and led to significant vision issues. In his autobiography, he described the punch as leaving him “dim” in that eye. Fortunately, Roosevelt had other physical pursuits to keep him busy, including the tennis courts he had installed in 1902, although he never allowed himself to be photographed while wearing his sporty racket outfit.

15. He burned his presidential portrait.

Not known as a vain man, Roosevelt was still disappointed in his official presidential portrait. Artist Théobald Chartran, Roosevelt claimed, had made him look like a “mewing cat.” Even his children teased him about it. After being displayed in Chartran’s home country of France, the painting returned to the White House, where Roosevelt burned it as one of his final acts in office.

16. He was the first president to leave the country during his term.

Roosevelt, who had petitioned for the construction of the Panama Canal for years, couldn’t resist an opportunity to see the site for himself when plans were finally underway. In 1906, he visited Panama and in doing so became the first president to travel outside the U.S. while holding office. The workers let him operate a steam shovel.

17. He hated being called "Teddy."

Still life of a 'Teddy' Bear sitting with its tag describing the origin of the toy and US president Theodore Roosevelt circa the 1950s.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Despite giving his blessing for stuffed-animal makers to refer to their bears as “Teddys,” Roosevelt—whose childhood nickname was "Teedie"—was no fan of the nickname. Reportedly, it reminded him of his late first wife, Alice, who used the term when addressing him; Roosevelt hardly ever spoke of her following her untimely death in 1884. (He married second wife Edith Carow in 1886.) He liked being called “Colonel Roosevelt” in his later years. While on safari, his African escorts called him “Bwana Tumbo,” or “Mr. Unusually Large Belly.”

18. He went skinny-dipping with the French ambassador.

Virtually all of our presidents have retained their modesty, but Roosevelt was never bashful about abandoning his clothes for a quick, naked dip in the water. While walking near the Potomac River in 1903, the president and the Chief of the Division of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot, jumped in for a swim, leaving their clothes behind. The French ambassador was with them, though he elected to keep his gloves on because “we might meet ladies!”

19. His oldest daughter tried his patience.

The eldest of Roosevelt’s children—and the only one with his first wife, Alice— Alice Roosevelt was 17 when her father took office and quickly became infamous for a series of public indiscretions. She was fond of smoking cigarettes on the roof of the White House after her father told her she couldn’t smoke indoors; she walked around with a boa constrictor on her neck. Alice’s carefree attitude made her a celebrity in her own right, with one color—“Alice blue”—named after her. Active in Washington until her death at age 96, Alice was known as “the other Washington monument.”

20. He had a chest tattoo.

Decades before Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau flashed his arm ink, Roosevelt sported a large tattoo directly on his chest. It was a depiction of the Roosevelt family crest. He might not be the only U.S. president who’s had work done, though: Andrew Jackson was said to have a tomahawk on his thigh, while James Polk supposedly had a Chinese character meaning “eager.”

21. He drank coffee by the gallon.

Perhaps not literally—but close. According to his family, Roosevelt's coffee cup was akin to a "bathtub," and he sweetened each cup with seven lumps of sugar. He was such a fan of the beverage that Maxwell House once put his face on some of their print ads.

22. He was a voracious—if curious—reader.

Roosevelt was said to have devoured a book a day, reading through texts with such speed it didn’t seem possible he could retain much information—but he did, firing off answers to anything he was quizzed on. He also read magazines but maintained an odd habit: After reading each page, he would rip it out and toss it to the floor.

23. He ran for a third term.

After winning re-election in 1904, Roosevelt told his supports that would be the end for him. In 1908, he supported Republican William Howard Taft. Taft won, but by 1912, their relationship had soured. Historians have long debated the specifics of the split; theories include Taft failing to keep his campaign promises, Taft being more rigid in the law than Roosevelt would have liked (especially in attempting to break up U.S. Steel, which Roosevelt had assured wouldn’t happen), Taft’s firing of Pinchot, or just differing views on how the government should respond to a nation rapidly becoming more urbanized and industrial. Whatever the reason, Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912 on the new Progressive ticket. Republican support was split between Roosevelt and Taft, allowing Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency. Despite the loss, Roosevelt’s attempt at a three-peat was among the most successful third-party campaigns in history.

24. He was the first former president to fly in an airplane.

Heeding another call to adventure, in 1910 Roosevelt became the first current or former president to board a plane. The opportunity came at the invitation of aviator Arch Hoxsey, who invited Roosevelt to climb on board his plane in St. Louis, Missouri. A crowd of 10,000 people watched, with some expecting the beloved public figure to meet a bad end in the suspect-looking craft. After a three-minute, 20-second flight, Roosevelt was beaming. “I envy you your professional conquest of space,” he told Hoxsey.

25. He gave a speech immediately after being shot.

Roosevelt's speech pages showing where the bullet passed through.
Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Roosevelt’s reputation as a “bull moose,” his term to describe anyone made of sturdy stuff, was never on better display than October 14, 1912, when the former president was giving a speech in Milwaukee and announced he had just been shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. A shocked crowd looked on as Roosevelt revealed a bloody shirt and a stack of prepared remarks with a bullet hole in them (above; you can see both the papers and the shirt at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City). Roosevelt spoke for 90 minutes before allowing his aides to take him to a hospital. The bullet had lodged itself near his ribs and would remain there for the rest of his life.

26. A trip to the Amazon almost killed him.

An incurable adventurer, Roosevelt set his sights on an Amazon river in 1913, declaring it his "last chance to a boy." Plotting his course on the largely-uncharted and inherently dangerous "River of Doubt," Roosevelt's notoriously sturdy constitution was challenged like never before. Several people in his party were struck down by tropical illness and half of the pack animals traveling with them died of exhaustion; food became scarce. Roosevelt himself grew ill with fever and reportedly was prepared to be left to die. After two months, they were able to return to civilization.

27. He met Houdini.

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt pose for a picture.
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Sailing on the SS Imperator in 1914, Roosevelt was captivated by the ship’s booked entertainment: famed illusionist Harry Houdini. After a “séance” in which the magician correctly surmised Roosevelt had been in Brazil recently, an astounded Roosevelt asked if Houdini was really practiced in the dark arts. He played coy, but the truth was that Houdini knew Roosevelt would be on board and asked associates for information about his recent exploits.

11 Patriotic Products to Celebrate the Fourth of July

Amazon
Amazon

Whether you’ll be lounging by the beach or grilling in your backyard this Independence Day, don’t forget to show off your all-American spirit with a little swag. Here are 11 products to help you celebrate Fourth of July—all of which would pair nicely with your collection of presidential bobbleheads.

1. Declaration Of Independence Signatures Mug; $15

Mug decorated with the signatures from the Declaration of Independence.
CafePress, Amazon

The names of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are on display on this ceramic coffee mug. Studying the signatures each morning might inspire you to perfect your own John Hancock.

Find it: Amazon

2. Stars And Stripes Cufflinks; $55

Cufflinks with images of stars and stripes on them

Cufflinks Inc., Nordstrom

Brighten up your wardrobe with a splash of American pride. One half of this cufflinks set is striped red and white and the other is blue and spangled with stars. Together they make a patriotic accent piece.

Find it: Nordstrom

3. Fireworks Light Show Projector; $41

Portable fireworks light projector.
Uncle Milton, Amazon

If you want a low-hazard Fourth of July that still delivers thrills, consider getting a light show projector. When it’s pointed at a wall, the device displays vibrant fireworks animations accompanied by realistic sound effects. And it works indoors, so you can count on your Independence Day party ending with a light show no matter the weather forecast. (There's also a Disney version available for just $20.)

Find it: Amazon

4. Inflatable Cooler; $14

Inflatable American flag cooler filled with ice and drinks.
Fun Express, Amazon

When preparing for a picnic or barbecue this Fourth of July, don’t bother breaking out your tiny roll-away cooler. This 54-by-28-inch inflatable trough holds enough bottles and cans to keep your party going well past sunset. Once the cooler has been drained and deflated, it folds neatly for easy storage.

Find it: Amazon

5. American Trivia Cards; $15

Even players who paid attention in American history class might find this game challenging. Each box comes with 150 cards of United States trivia. Some questions—like what was the first state to grant women the right to vote—highlight important moments in our nation’s history. Others—like how many columns the Lincoln Memorial features—are a little more random.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. U.S. Navy Blanket; $200

The U.S. military has been going to Faribault Woolen Mill Co. for its blankets for over 100 years. This one is crafted from 100 percent wool and weighs 3.5 pounds. The design is inspired by the blankets supplied on Navy ships—and if it’s tough enough for the Navy, you can bet it will withstand a Fourth of July picnic. We like the gray version, but it comes in several different styles and colors.

Find it: Faribault Woolen Mill Co.

7. American Flag Cornhole; $90

Two American flag cornhole boards with bean bags.
GoSports, Amazon

Baseball faces some stiff competition from cornhole for the title of No. 1 American pastime. This lawn set includes four blue bean bags, four red bean bags, and two boards decorated to resemble the American flag.

Find it: Amazon

8. U.S. Map Cutting Board; $20

Wooden cutting board in the shape of the U.S. map.
Totally Bamboo, Amazon

This 100 percent bamboo board eschews the traditional rectangle shape in favor of the outline of the American mainland. You can either keep it in the kitchen and use it as a cutting board or bring it out to the party as a serving platter for fruits, cheeses, and other hors d'oeuvres.

Find it: Amazon

9. Boston Tea Party Tea Sampler; $15

Six piles of loose-leaf tea.
Solstice Tea Traders, Amazon

A sip of one of the teas in this sampler will put you in touch with your inner revolutionary. Each of the six loose-leaf varieties—bohea black tea, oolong, congou black tea, souchong, singlo, and hyson—was among those tossed over the sides of British ships during the Boston Party. Whether you drink the tea or chuck it into the nearest harbor is up to you. (If you're looking for something to put on display, UncommonGoods also sells a slightly pricier, more elegant option with five teas.)

Find it: Amazon

10. State Map Prints; $27 and Up

A poster featuring a colorful map of Wisconsin
Bri Buckley, Society6

These unique prints by Bri Buckley highlight the beauty of each U.S. state in vibrant color. Each state map is available in both a modern and a vintage style, and like most Society6 art, the design is also available on tapestries, shirts, pillows, tote bags, and more.

Find it: Society6

11. Bald Eagle Pool Float; $15

A man and a woman ride a bald eagle pool float
Swimline, Amazon

Cool down the patriotic way this Fourth of July. This massive 8-foot-by-6-foot bald eagle pool float can fit up to two people comfortably, and will look great floating around your pool during your backyard barbecue.

Find it: Amazon

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated for 2019.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

This Is the Brain of the Man Who Shot James A. Garfield

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was about to board a train at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. when Charles Guiteau stepped behind him. The failed lawyer, newspaperman, and evangelist—enraged that the president’s advisors had refused him an ambassadorship he believed he deserved, and, as he had written the night before, to “unite the Republican Party and save the Republic”—had been stalking Garfield for months, intent on killing him. Now, here, finally, was his chance.

Guiteau raised his pistol, a British Bulldog he’d bought for $10, took aim, and pulled the trigger—not once, but twice. One bullet grazed the president’s arm; the other came to rest behind his pancreas. Guiteau was apprehended, and Garfield was whisked away to an upstairs room. “Doctor,” he told the city health official who was the first doctor on the scene, “I am a dead man.”

He was moved to suffer first in the sweltering White House, where 12 doctors probed his wounds with their unsterilized fingers, and then to Long Beach, New Jersey, where he died on September 19, 1881. Shortly after, Guiteau was charged with murder.

At his trial, which began in November, Guiteau appointed himself co-counsel; among his other lawyers was his brother-in-law, George Scoville, who normally handled land deeds. Scoville claimed that his brother was legally insane, and Guiteau said that yes, while he was legally insane—because God had removed his free will at the time of the assassination—he was not medically insane. Still, for someone who claimed he wasn't actually insane, his behavior during the trial was strange: He frequently interrupted his attorney, sang songs, insulted the jurors, and declared, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

(Guiteau may have had a point. Garfield ultimately died of an infection that may have been caused by doctors using their unwashed hands to look for the bullet. According to PBS, "In late 19th century America, such a grimy search was a common medical practice for treating gunshot wounds. A key principle behind the probing was to remove the bullet, because it was thought that leaving buckshot in a person’s body led to problems ranging from 'morbid poisoning' to nerve and organ damage.")

Though the defense called experts to attest to Guiteau’s insanity, psychiatrists called by the prosecution noted that the defendant knew right from wrong and was not definitely insane. In the early days of January 1882, the jury sentenced him to die by hanging.

On June 30, 1882, Guiteau read a poem he'd penned himself (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) and fell through the trapdoor of the scaffold. An hour and a half after that, his autopsy began, and his brain was removed and examined to get to the bottom of the insanity question once and for all. According to Sam Kean in his book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, “Most scientists at the time believed that insanity, true insanity, always betrayed itself by clear brain damage—lesions, hemorrhages, putrid tissue, or something.” Guiteau’s brain weighed 50 ounces and looked, for the most part, normal—at least to the naked eye. But under a microscope was a different story:

"Guiteau’s brain looked awful. The outer rind on the surface, the 'gray matter' that controls higher thinking, had thinned to almost nothing in spots. Neurons had perished in droves, leaving tiny holes, as if someone had carbonated the tissue. Yellow-brown gunk, a remnant of dying blood vessels, was smeared everywhere as well. Overall the pathologists found 'decided chronic disease … pervad[ing] all portions of the brain' … Guiteau was surely insane."

Today, portions of Guiteau’s brain can be found at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

[h/t Biomedical Ephemera]

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